Bobby Smith gets some help opening a PowerPoint on volcanoes from QHS teacher Jared Holman at Quincy High School, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. in Quincy, Ill., Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. (Jake Shane/Quincy Herald-Whig via AP)
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QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — Lincoln-Douglas third-graders Emma Smith and Alaina Nichols sat at their table, brainstorming ideas about a Thanksgiving parade float for a writing assignment.

Alaina settled on a pumpkin pie theme.

“Pumpkin pie goes with November,” she explained. “Thanksgiving is in November.”

The pair say they’ve settled into a school year like no other — wearing masks that Emma said “feel normal to me to have on all day,” socially distancing and exchanging elbow bumps instead of high fives.

It’s also a year like no other for teacher Hannah Marks, spending her first year in charge of a classroom in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She’s doing really good,” Emma said. “She’s like the nicest and kindest teacher I’ve ever had. She lets us have a lot of fun this year.”

The school year, so far, is definitely not what Marks envisioned, but she said it’s going well for both the students and their teacher.

“It feels like everyone’s a first-year teacher this year because everyone’s so new to teaching in a mask, new to not being able to have their classroom set up like the way they wanted it to,” Marks said.

“That definitely is something that eased my nerves going into the school year. We’re all going through this together. Other people are going through the same thing I’m going through.”

The Quincy High School and Illinois College graduate also is positive she made the right career choice.

“I love being able to celebrate even the smallest success with the kids, seeing their faces light up, that boost of confidence when they discover they can actually do the math problem they’ve been struggling on or that they are a very smart kiddo,” Marks said. “I can see myself doing this for, I think, the rest of my life.”

Quincy Public Schools added 29 first-year teachers for this school year, and Teacher Mentor Project Coordinator Marilyn Smith said all are doing better than she could have ever expected.

“They came in without the expectations that the seasoned teachers had or the fear of some of the things we’re dealing with with the pandemic. Everything’s new to them. That was just one more new thing,” Smith said.

And they’ve adjusted well — with no basis for comparison.

“This is what I know,” Marks said. “I know how to teach in a mask.”

Changes tied to COVID-19 have both helped and hindered first-year teacher Jared Holman’s classroom at Quincy High School.

Wearing masks, which mask facial expressions, makes building relationships with students more time-consuming, but smaller numbers in the classroom due to the A day/B day schedule this year is an advantage.

“Classroom management is less, so that I can spend more time focusing on the students, the assignment that they’re working on, individualized instruction they may require,” Holman said.

“Only having eight or 10 students in class, as opposed to 22 or 25, makes getting to know these students a lot easier. Even though it’s every other day, the time I do have with them is of higher quality.”

The high school schedule has teachers covering the same material twice with different groups of students, “but it also allows me to sort of master my own style of teaching,” Holman said. “I learn from my mistakes. This didn’t work on A day. If I try this on B day, it might work better.”

New hires work with a seasoned teacher mentor throughout the year — and meet as a group with Marilyn Smith first for orientation and then for training every other month.

Trainings have focused on curriculum and student growth along with challenges facing some students and how to help support them as well as how to build COVID-related changes into classroom routine.

Telling students to pull their mask back up over their nose may be a frequent reminder, but it’s “the same as ‘stay in your seat’ or ‘we’re not talking,’” Smith said. “You’re still teaching. Kids are still learning.”

Mentors highlight practices used in a “normal” year, “so they will know next year, or later in the year hopefully, what is good practice still without being able to do that,” Smith said.

Good practice had Holman blending a video and some of his personal experience into a review for an upcoming test in an environmental science class.

Students drew praise from Holman for knowing the biggest volcanic belt in the world is the ring of fire, an area Holman visited while traveling in Asia, before moving into a discussion of different volcanic land forms.

Holman and Shanti Bowen co-teach the class, working together with the regular and special education students.

“He’s doing good,” Bowen said. “Nothing’s really stopped him. He’s here for the kids.”

Quarantined for two weeks in October due to a possible exposure to COVID-19 meant another new experience for Holman, who continued to teach from home with help from Bowen and co-teacher Austin Schlueter in two other classes.

“If remote teaching is ever the current plan, I’ll already know a few things that don’t work because of my experiences in quarantine,” Holman said.

“This is a different situation than what most teachers are used to starting off with,” he said. “The veteran teachers, it’s been difficult for them as well, but their experience has been invaluable for instruction of students.”

The Quincy University graduate initially wanted to be an English teacher, then considered a career in nursing before finding before his love of science won out.

“Now I’m a science teacher,” Holman said. “I think I just had to try something else before I realized how much I do love teaching.”

He substitute taught for a year, waiting for a QHS science position to open up, and the excitement of simply being a teacher and “having the same students every day, the same students all year” hasn’t worn off. Neither has the love of teaching in his hometown.

“I love making connections with students and being an influence in their lives. I wanted to do that with Quincy (students),” he said. “At QHS in general, there’s a lot of alumni. I graduated from Quincy Notre Dame, but I’m a true Blue Devil now, and I’m really proud to be part of such a homegrown professional community.”

Teaching swim lessons at the Quincy Family YMCA spurred Marks’ career choice.

“I just loved being able to teach, being able to see kids grow as learners and getting to celebrate their successes with them,” Marks said. “I’m a teacher because I’m a kid at heart.”

Staying in the Quincy area, and teaching at QPS, felt right to Marks.

“I grew up here. I really like the Quincy area,” she said. “I really wanted to give back to the school district. By teaching in Quincy I could really do that and have an impact on those kiddos.”

The challenge this year, though, is helping kids stay safe and healthy in the classroom “so we can all learn the best that we can,” Marks said. “I’m still trying to make it like a regular school year, where they’re able to do hands-on work, able to do partner work, just very limited.”

Each day continues the learning process for Marks, Holman and other first-year teachers — and students are happy to help.

While Emma and Alaina say they’re learning from Marks, they’re also teaching her some things.

“We taught her words she didn’t know,” Alaina said.

“Like how to spell Mandalorian,” Emma said.


Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig,